Saturday, May 31, 2008

Fundraising idea

From the department of Bizarre, Quasi-Animistic Explanations of Everday Meteorological Phenomena, we are proud to present a comprehensive Theory of Rainstorms. Consider:

1) Rainstorms are finite phenomena. That is, they have a beginning and an end.
2) When you look outside and find that it is raining, you usually take an umbrella. You do this because umbrellas keep the rain from falling onto your head.
3) Sometimes, you read the weather forecast and learn that the weather sultans have predicted a rainstorm. Then you take an umbrella with you when you go outside, but sometimes it doesn't actually rain and you carry an umbrella around for nothing.
4) Last week, I read that thundershowers were expected later that evening, and I didn't have an umbrella handy, so I bought one and have been carrying it around in my bag ever since. On three separate occasions, I have left the house to practice for a few hours, carrying my umbrella; each time, it started raining shortly after I started practicing and stopped just before I finished. Today, the rain on the roof was so loud that it almost equalled the sound of the full organ (a 3-manual of about twenty-five stops).

CONCLUSION: Organists can prevent rain by walking around with umbrellas.

So here's a fundraising scheme for your local RCCO/AGO centre: negotiate with owners of golf courses, amusement parks, wedding chapels and other businesses which depend on sunny weather. For a reasonable fee, these businesses can hire an organist to stand outside, holding an umbrella, guaranteeing clear skies for their patrons. Once this relationship becomes an established part of doing business, organists can lobby for additional concessions such as TV coverage of organ recitals, a civic holiday to celebrate the birth of Percy Dearmer, the worldwide abolition of awful electronic church organs, and mandatory worldwide Messiaenological education.

Cynics and scofflaws would argue that this proposal would wreak havoc upon the world's climate and make agriculture impossible, but we've already thought of this; the organists will return home on selected evenings, giving everyone enough advance warning to find a good book and get a good fire going.

(The pathetic fallacy. It's not just a literary trope. It's a way of life.)

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Suggested tags from similar products

From Amazon:
"Be the first one to add a relevant tag (keyword that's strongly related to this product)."
linkin park (173)
noel josh groban christmas (161)
christmas (142)
amy winehouse (138)

I would be delighted beyond belief if Josh Groban did, in fact, include works by Ernst Toch (1887-1964) on his Christmas album. Alas, a quick Google search reveals this is not so. A pity - the Geographical Fugue is due for a revival.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Good Morning!

A warm welcome to those arriving here from ChoralNet, where a number of TBWCTW (what an acronym!) posts have been featured recently. Make yourselves comfortable, and try not to get too disappointed by the backlog of posts that have nothing to do with choral music and are, instead, about things like Tom Stoppard, ringtones, Middle English, and the weather.

This sudden upsurge in site traffic is a bit scary for a novice blogger who died in the late sixteenth century. A certain self-consciousness sets in when you realize you're performing for an audience. Should I post more often? Less often? Should I rhapsodize at length about obscure topics, or should I just post pictures and YouTube videos? The honest answer is that I'll write whatever and whenever I feel like, but even this is a form of conformity in a medium where fearless iconoclasm is practically a prerequisite. What if I write a blog post which is about thinking about writing blog posts? Oooh, that'd be so postmodern.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Drop the needle

Quick! Guess the composer!

Easy. Colin McPhee (1900-1964). As a cultured person, you clearly know all about McPhee's music, but for the sake of the ham sandwich in the corner who's never heard of the man, I'll elaborate. McPhee was the anti-Canadian composer; born in either Montreal or Toronto (no-one seems to know), he moved to the States, became a respected ethnomusicologist and published the first study of Balinese gamelan music. When asked, he would rail against what he saw as the provincialism and small-mindedness of Canadian musical culture; he never went back to Canada but has been posthumously adopted as a Canadian composer because he wrote this piece called Tabuh-Tabuhan (1936) and audiences seem to like it. Three cheers for the Canadian musical heritage!

Anyway. You should have guessed immediately that the excerpt was by McPhee; his characteristic gamelan-inspired sound is unmistakable, with whirling ostinatos up and down the pentatonic scale and prominent percussion parts. Obvious, really. In fact, less charitable people would go further and say that McPhee's "characteristic sound" is actually evidence of a lack of originality; all his later works sound like slightly less successful reworkings of Tabuh-Tabuhan. Here at This Blog Will Change the World, however, we are nothing if not charitable, so we won't even suggest such a thing.

Here's the thing, though. The piece is not by Colin McPhee; it's a section of Henry Cowell's Variations for Orchestra (1956). Cowell, who most people know as "that playing-inside-the-piano guy", could well have intended this as a tribute to his friend; certainly they were both interested in Eastern music. But still: if Cowell had written an entire piece in this style, his heirs could have sold the manuscript to the CBC as a genuine McPhee piece. If he could imitate other composers this well, he could been a rich man. I'm a bit frightened.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

A successor to Schoenberg

A Google search for Nicholas Maw's Odyssey turned up the Contemporary Classical Music guide page. (Domain name: Heh.) Alongside pages dedicated to Xenakis, Penderecki, Maxwell Davies, and Rautavaara, we find a page dedicated to rapper Eminem (remember him?) as one of the foremost exponents of post-Schoenberg Sprechstimme. The guide's suggestion to Eminem fans for further listening in the same style? Berio's Sequenza III.

Also priceless is the introduction to their page on Lennox Berkeley's motet Crux fidelis:
Contemporary choral music is often more accessible than orchestral music. One reason for this is that much of it is religious. Modern vocal sounds, such as blood-curdling screams, crying and gurgles are hardly appropriate in all but the most liberal, or perhaps evangelical, of churches.
Touche! A brilliant satire on contemporary Christian culture and music if I've ever seen one. Or take the discussion of Xenakis's Metastasis, which makes the interesting point that Xenakis's modernist work sounds very similar to the glissandi of the THX trailer, and then goes on to add:
The important questions that we are left to ask are these. First, why is Xenakis’s groundbreaking music considered by many to be difficult and modernist, when we perceive the THX movie trailer to be both accessible and part of popular culture? And second, should we not try to resolve this conflict rationally, by accepting Xenakis and thus choosing to listen to his music?
Indeed! But my favourite is this recommendation:
  • If you liked Haydn's Farewell Symphony, you might like Cage's 4'33''.
I'm convinced this site is either one of the satirical masterpieces of the current age, or in need of some editing.

And Odyssey? I'm not sure if it's a wholly successful experiment - there's very little precedent for 90-minute orchestral works in one continuous movement - but I'd say it was worth my time. It's worth yours, too.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

An underappreciated composer

I've written before about my admiration for Michael Tippett's music. Every once in a while, I search out another Tippett piece to listen to, and every time I'm bowled over by this phenomenally individual voice. About a month ago, it was his The Mask of Time, an intimidatingly difficult but ingratiatingly written oratorio, and I was astonished to find that there is no recording of the work currently in circulation. (The copy I listened to was from a library.) Today, it was his Second Symphony. Listen to the opening, which is so propulsive I could hardly stay in my chair:

Regular readers of this blog will know that I frequently try to promote the works of obscure composers. But despite my occasional overexcitement when talking about people like Edmund Rubbra, I'm aware that most of these composers are of the second rank. Knowing the symphonies of Franz Berwald will add a lot to your enjoyment of nineteenth-century orchestral music, but you can get a pretty good sense of the symphony without hearing any Berwald. His works aren't essential to the genre the way that Beethoven's or Brahms's, are. Tippett, though, is different - his style is totally original. When we ignore his music, we miss out on a voice that sounds like no-one else's.

Tippett's essential strength is his ability to navigate a middle ground between dissonance and consonance. We've all heard pieces of 1960s serialism that are so radically dissonant as to be totally inexpressive; today, we regularly hear pieces of neo-Romantic sludge that are so reactionary as to lack any sense of personality. The successful composers were the composers who avoided being locked into the past without falling into the trap of writing for an atonal-utopian future that will never arrive. Tippett, like Messiaen and Bartok, can tread both sides of the line, and the music he produces challenges the connoisseur while retaining enough excitement and drama for a general audience. And so when Schoenberg said that there was still much good music to be written in C major, I can't think of a better example of what he meant than Tippett's symphony.

Bottom line: Tippett is really amazing. Go listen to his music.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

An historic problem

In the general conservatism of their repertory, it might most be suspected that choral societies have accepted without a struggle their relegation to a second-class power in the world of music. In the last century choirs vied to perform new music by such overseas celebrities as Dvorak and Gounod; today, however, one notices no comparable scramble for Stravinsky. Indeed, when choral societies do try occasionally to slake their consciences and extend their repertory, they too often turn not to the great modern masters but to some figure of no conceivable significance in the wider world of music. It is not certain who is deceiving whom by this process. But it is certain that a huge gap frequently stretches between a choral society's choice of a classical repertory (normally grounded in a selection, albeit narrow, from the greatest practitioners of the art) and its choice of a modern repertory, which often takes deliberate refuge in mere local and ephemeral works.
. . .
Indeed, if we set aside such 'closed' social groups as schools and colleges, it would seem that only one choral activity is still deeply part of our society and would be widely missed if it disappeared. I refer to the performances of Handel's Messiah, and of carols, at Christmas time. The one festival of the Christian year which has broadened itself into an important secular festival has carried over the originally Christian choral celebration into the new context. (That Handel did not actually intend Messiah as a Christmas work is not the point.) There is an eloquent moral in the fact that leading choral societies habitually base their financial plans on the certainty that performances of Messiah and Christmas carols will yield enough profits to offset substantially the loss expected on everything else.
Arthur Jacobs, "Postscript", in Choral Music, ed. Arthur Jacobs.

Anyone who believes that the problems of today's choirs have an easy fix should take note of the fact that the above article was written in 1963.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Songs of Travel

. . . not the RVW song cycle, which was on the radio on the way home, but a brief precis of my journey to exotic Sackville, New Brunswick for the Podium 2008 conference. Events like this always bring to the surface my deep-seated ambivalence to the contemporary choral scene. On the one hand, the standard of performance was extremely high and the immense vitality and diversity of Canadian choral music was on full display. On the other hand, there were only three ensembles which programmed anything resembling standard choral repertoire - including the National Youth Choir, which could hardly do otherwise. Instead, what we heard over and over again was some combination of the following:

1) Newly-composed choral-industrial music, of the sort described here.
2) Folk song and spiritual settings.
3) Gospel repertoire.
4) Arrangements of pop songs, jazz standards, show tunes etc.

Nothing wrong with any of these, but when they make up the majority of all choral programmes at a conducting conference, where one would supposedly expect to hear the most exciting, challenging and unusual types of repertoire, I start to worry a bit. When it means that the sum total of all Renaissance repertoire that I heard performed was a single Morley madrigal and a Handl motet, I start to wonder if this is not maybe, perhaps, presenting a slightly skewed view of choral music? Possibly?

On the other other hand, there's nothing wrong with any of the categories I listed above. I'd be the last person to tell choirs to stop taking chances on new compositions, for instance, and there's a place for folk songs and spirituals in every choir's repertoire. Even the arrangements of new and old pop songs I have no quarrel with, as long as you realize that these pieces are transcriptions, not choral repertoire per se. But on the other other other hand (presumably sprouting out of my back), this repertoire is totally estranged from the kinds of choral music that I'd want to promote. How would a conductor ever have a hope of programming works like Xenakis's Nuits and Messiaen's Cinq rechants when the audience hasn't even been exposed to Brahms and Mendelssohn? That's why the conference bothered me, and why a series of otherwise inspiring and exciting performances were so depressing in aggregate.

If you'll grant me an imaginary fifth hand to make a final point, I'd like to propose the following: composers should be physically restrained from writing for chorus if they have never taken a counterpoint class. When I can sit in the audience and hear voice-leading errors in newly-composed, straightforwardly tonal compositions, someone needs to get their act together.

Enough said about that.

But New Brunswick was nice. And trips like these are the perfect opportunity to discover interests you never knew you had - like Quebec separatist rap music and covered bridges.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A misunderstanding

Accompanied a performance this afternoon for a group of public school students and spent an amusing few minutes perusing student artwork on display on the walls. A series of illustrations of animals were accompanied by explanatory captions:

"Do lions roar? Yes, they do."
"I like cats, because they have fur."
"Penguins cannot fly."
"Jesuits are good."


This must be the first time a child has ever listed their favourite animals as lions, cats, penguins and Jesuits. Not only that, but this was a secular school; did teachers approve of this all-consuming interest?

I asked the teacher who put up the artwork. Turns out the inscription was actually "Seals are good swimmers", with the final word tucked in at the bottom of the page.

One day, I will get an up-to-date prescription for eyeglasses, but at times I wonder if this will drain all the joy out of my life.

And, from the department of Surreal Conversations with Taxicab Dispatchers:

Osbert: I'd like to arrange for a taxicab pickup at [address] at 7:15.
Dispatcher: Right. Ummmm. . . eighteen, nineteen, twenty. . .
Osbert: Pardon?
Dispatcher: I'm trying to figure out what time I should put into my computer. We're on military time here, you see.
Osbert: Well, in that case the time you want is 19:15.
Dispatcher: Oh! I didn't know you were a military man!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Performance injuries

Casualties incurred this week:

accidental cuts to fingers with kitchen knives - 3
accidental cuts to fingers with cheese grater - 1
accidental cuts to fingers with broken glass - 1
huge blisters caused by playing too many glissandi - 1
accidental cuts to left ear with razor - 1

(Who cuts their ear while shaving? Who?)

Simple-minded people may assume that these tragic injuries were a result of my usual clumsiness amplified by nerves as I approached a week of important performances. But I know better - I am the target of an anti-Williamson cabal, determined to submerge all Australian-British serial music forever. Well, it won't work!

This post will not change the world

Blogging occasionally gets labelled as a "stream-of-consciousness" medium, a direct link from our head to your screen, but this is profoundly misleading. If your brain is anything like mine, thoughts bounce around at breakneck speed, totally unimpeded by the limitations of grammar and logical sense. And so we pick out the few thoughts that make sense, dress them up with subjects and predicates and send them out for worldwide consumption. The rest of our thought process is untranslatable - random ideas, white noise, and whatever misfiring synapse that kept making me think of the Glaucoma Hymn whenever I tried to concentrate on anything else. Listen to it, I dare you!

I suppose this is what comes of too much commuting between cities and not enough sleep. By this evening, the only thing I was fit for was staring out a train window and humming "Glaucoma, glaucoma, constricting vision slowly" to myself. Not even the enticements of an Anthony Powell novel could persuade my tired brain to concentrate on anything. Still, it was a successful week of playing, with a good showing in a competition this afternoon and a successful performance (reviewed here) of the Malcolm Williamson organ symphony.

Tomorrow is Pentecost, of course, which requires several important liturgical adjustments, the most important of which is writing on the white board with red markers rather than blue at choir practice. (Theoretically the liturgical colour for the Easter season is white, not blue, but I was unable to find any white dry erase markers!) And you'll be pleased to know that my tradition of enlivening my music lists with silly conceits (as reported here and here) is still going strong; today's theme is "Twentieth-Century 'Veni Creator' Settings By Composers Whose Last Names Begin With 'L' Week"*. I'm confident that this idea will be accepted with enthusiasm by the congregation; every time I play modernist voluntaries, I notice an extra spring in their step as they hurry downstairs to coffee hour.

*The composers are, obviously, Leighton and Litaize!

Friday, May 9, 2008

The philosophy of train travel

I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time on trains these days, and so I've started to plan my reading schedule around two-hour trips to Toronto. With two hours on the train and about half an hour waiting in the lounge, I can safely expect to read a 150-200 page book and still have time to gawk out the window while I'm in the train. The only things in my library that fit comfortably in that page range. however, are plays and philosophical treatises. Which is how I found myself reading Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy on a train ride this afternoon.

I am deeply ambivalent about travelling, and so began creating a Boethian model of the ups and downs of train travel. As I wait in line, toting my heavy knowledge, I am consoled by the knowledge that Fortune's wheel will turn around again and find me inside the train, reading in air-conditioned comfort as the rugged Ontario scenery zips by. At the end of the train ride, however, I will find myself crushed beneath the wheel, pressed in by throngs of angry commuters as I struggle to make my way to the subway station. Turn therefore from vice: ensue virtue: raise your soul to upright hopes: send up on high your prayers from this earth. If you would be honest, great is the necessity enjoined upon your goodness, since all you do is done before the eyes of an all-seeing Judge.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Historiographical Digression

Part II of an occasional series.

In my first post on this subject, I expressed my irritation with the way music history is now interpreted. The last generation of historians regarded atonal ultra-complexity as a necessary step for music to be progressive - modality led to diatonicism, diatonicism to chromaticism, chromaticism to atonality. Today's new historians regard atonality to varying degrees as a momentary historical blip; they use the harmonic series to justify functional tonality as a musical norm and enthusiastically accept minimalism and neo-Romanticism as a more authentic expression of modern music.

Both views irritate me. Why shouldn't you be able to enjoy both Rubbra and Birtwistle, both Adams and Dallapiccola? Many people do, of course, but neither of these versions of history is able to encompass all of them. And what do you do with composers like Frank Martin, who wrote tonally but included serial rows in his counterpoint, or Richard Yardumian, who invented a totally idiosyncratic system for using all twelve tones? People like that are caught in the middle, too reactionary for the old historians but not tonal enough for the new generation.

This post isn't going to solve the problem, but I'm hoping to shed a bit of light on the nature of the dispute by putting things into a different context. In my first post, I discussed everything in the light of tonal relationships: tonality versus atonality, major and minor keys versus serialism. But the same divide can be noticed by the way the old and new generation discusses the composer's relationship with the audience, and with popular music.

The older generation talked about the nineteenth century as a time when composers split off from the patronage system and set out on their own to write the music that they wanted to write. Mozart tried valiantly to break away, with some success; Beethoven finally managed it. Thereafter, music was not the servant of political or religious leaders, but art for art's sake. Hurray!

The new generation talks about the nineteenth century as a time when popular music and classical music began to separate. Before that time, classical music wasn't that much different from popular music - a popular dance style could find its way into a symphony, and a composed theme could turn into a popular song. In the nineteenth century, composers pursued a misguided strategy of writing "art for art's sake", and their increasingly complex music moved farther and farther away from popular music. Alack!

The fact that the terminology is different - a "widening gap between classical and popular music" instead of "the emancipation of the composer"- doesn't change the fact that they're both talking about the same phenomenon, which is the move from away from a utilitarian, functional view of music toward a more autonomous ideal. In itself, this is an inarguable historical fact. What's relevant is the way it's discussed, with both sides skewing the facts to portray their central myths:

Old Myth: All classical pieces started out as avant-garde music; with the passage of time, they became accepted into the repertoire.

Most of the early modernist composers dearly wanted this to be true; Schoenberg desparately hoped that future generations would grow to know and love his music, while Ives daydreamed about a world where small children's schoolyard songs would include quarter tones. In hindsight, it seems unlikely that the most abtruse pieces of atonal music will ever achieve wide popularity. Much of the twentieth-century repertoire, like Le sacre or the Shostakovich Fifth, has already achieved a firm place in the repertoire, while other pieces, like Metastasis or Unity Capsule, will probably remain the enthusiasms of specialists. What I don't understand is why so many people think there's something wrong with this. Audiences may flock to performances of Morley madrigals, but will probably be less enthused by the strange, dissonant madrigals of Gesualdo. Likewise, the same audience that flocks to the Messiah at Christmastime will not necessarily enjoy sitting through the Art of the Fugue. You can go as far back as the medieval period and find Ars Subtilior motets that still shock listeners after half a dozen centuries.

Bottom line: the old myth is wrong because every time period has room for a wide variety of musical styles, both simple and complex.

New myth: All classical pieces started out as popular music; only the distance of time has caused us to see them as classical.

This one looks attractive, doesn't it? People used to dance to Haydn minuets. Now instead of dancing to Hans Werner Henze pieces, they dance to techno music. But if Hans Werner Henze, or some other composer, finds a way to achieve a rapprochement with popular music, the two styles will rejoin and we'll all be happy!

Unfortunately, this muddles a whole bunch of facts. First of all, it's dangerous and wrong to equate today's "popular music" with the music that was most popular in previous generations. Most definitions of popular music include the idea that these musics are distributed over the mass media; in Haydn's time, the mass media didn't exist and thus, a mass audience didn't exist. Instead, music ran along two tracks; a cultivated, "classical" style for performance by professionals, and a simpler, populist style for performance by amateurs. Most composers had the ability to write in both styles; Brahms was a "popular" composer when he wrote a book of waltzes for two pianos, but a "classical" composer when his first piano concerto had its disastrous premiere. You can see the two styles side by side in Purcell's verse anthems; the sections sung by full choir are simple, easy to sing and declamatory, while the sections sung by soloists are full of challenging vocal writing and experimental harmonies. Some of the crunches in these anthems are still murder to perform, and probably were then as well.

Bottom line: the new myth is wrong, because every time period included a variety of styles, both elevated and populist.

What both attitudes share is an essentially apologetic attitude towards twentieth-century classical music. The aging serialists in your university music department hope that the music they write will one day become popular; the young musicologists next door hope that composers will get their act together and figure out how to become popular. But neither have the measure of the problem, and both misinterpret history to support their ideas.